The North Carolina volleyball team has started the 2021 season 6-0 — the first time they've accomplished this feat since 2016.
Their most recent wins came this past weekend, defeating Colorado State 3-2 and sweeping both Wofford and East Carolina in three straight sets.
The keys for the weekend’s success was the team’s “constant energy and communication,” said senior middle hitter Amanda Phegley.
“I think we came out with a lot of energy, and I think a big part of our consistency and ability to execute really well was our ability to turnover and stop the other team’s runs.”
Phegley also cited solid play from the outside hitters and the team’s ability to pass as key factors for the team’s victories. On an individual level, she was one of the Tar Heels’ top performers in the past three games.
Her best game came against Wofford when she recorded 11 kills, three block assists, and 12.5 points on a .786 hitting percentage. She was also a scoring machine in the Tar Heels’ most recent match, notching 10 points against ECU.
Other top performances came from graduate transfer outside hitter Nia Robinson, sophomore middle hitter Kaya Merkler and first-year outside hitter Mabrey Shaffmaster, who all combined for 57.5 points in the team's match against Colorado State.
But even outside of points, the team’s hitting percentage was excellent for most of the weekend.
The Tar Heels seemed to be more dominant when their efficiency was at its best, as they recorded .290, .400 and .128 hitting percentages in the three games over the weekend.
“On Friday and Saturday morning, we were phenomenal,” head coach Joe Sagula said. “Percentage (Saturday evening), we made more errors. I think we lost our focus a little bit and got a little sloppy. But, overall, I have a lot of confidence in our hitters. They know how to score at the right time.”
Sagula also recognized the increased hitting efficiency of the team's pin hitters and praised the performances of the middle hitters.
“We’re hitting so much better than we have,” Sagula said. “That’s a compliment to the hitters but also to the setters who are doing a great job at distributing. I thought (graduate setter) Meghan Neelon did a phenomenal job all weekend, and she has really helped lead us.”
If there’s one thing Sagula learned about his team this past weekend and during this win streak, it’s that this squad is loaded with leadership and experience. This past season, thanks in part to an extra year due to COVID-19, the UNC volleyball roster added graduates Robinson, Neelon and Emma Reynolds through the transfer portal, while also returning many of last year’s players and retaining graduate right side hitter Emily Zinger.
“Even though (the new players) are new, they’re experienced — they’re not rookies,” Sagula said. “They have added a mature vibe to the entire team, and that has created calmness for us and confidence for us.”
Sagula also has confidence in his team’s chemistry, which he describes as “fantastic.”
Leadership, confidence and camaraderie are what this team will need as they face tougher opponents and go into conference play later in the season. It’s still early with a whole season ahead, so the Tar Heels have to stay consistent in their winning ways, something they've struggled with in the past.
“I think our biggest challenge right now is to continue the streak that we’re on,” Merkler said. “Right now we are undefeated so staying that way will be a really big challenge as we go into the Big Ten Challenge next weekend.”
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